As the only table olive and olive oil research and educational center in the United States, the UC Davis Olive Center has a firsthand perspective on the future of California olive oil and its viability in the marketplace.
The UC Davis Olive Center is part of the Robert Mondavi Wine Institute for Food and Wine and houses two university departments, a state-of-the-art sensory facility, and enrichment space where agriculture and food science academia confer with food industry professionals and growers to better understand California’s rich food and wine history.
Within the last two years since the UC Davis Olive Center opened its doors, the California olive oil industry has seen expansive growth. Acreage of olive trees for oil has increased from 6,000 in 2004 to 22,000 in 2009. And with California producing 99% of the nation’s olive oil, the UC Davis Olive Center is ground zero for ongoing olive industry research and outreach.
Since the Olive Center’s inception, Executive Director Dan Flynn has been pleased with consumers’ growing enthusiasm for olive oil and the dedication that growers have shown to deliver the best products they can. “Being out there with those in the industry to find out their needs and how the university can help better serve them is a unique position that the Olive Center is in. We are the conduit between the university and the industry”, says Flynn.
The UC Davis Olive Center’s main goal is to educate the grower and consumer on the economic and agricultural variables involved in this burgeoning industry. California is at the cusp of transitioning its olive oil industry from boutique to big business and Flynn believes that there is room for both artisanal and large-scale production. Directly competing with mass-produced olive oil from huge global companies might not be possible, but larger-scale producers such as California Olive Ranch are demonstrating that a high-production company can offer consumers quality extra virgin olive oil at very competitive prices.
California’s olive oil industry continues to expand, in part from growers replacing dying fruit orchards with new olive trees and substituting the traditional orchard schematic with high- density planting systems that allow for more than 500 trees per acre of land. Variables regarding the costs associated with maintaining trees planted in such close quarters are currently being explored. “California has been planting super high-density for 10 years and we don’t know how long those trees will remain productive. Growers are looking into a few ways to renew orchards like cutting the tree off at the base or cutting everything back except for the trunk and allowing lateral branches to grow. Older orchards are still producing fruit at a good rate so we’re not there yet”, says Flynn.
Working on both the grower and consumer side has been rewarding for Flynn. “The small pool of growers is smart and used to being resourceful. They are open and eager for information. Consumers have been great with their interest in olive oil and it’s been fun to witness them taste oil properly for the first time”, says Flynn. Ongoing industry outreach includes symposiums on super high-density olive production, sensory evaluation seminars, and courses on olive oil production including milling techniques and marketing strategies.
Current collaboration with the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and Slow Food USA, says Flynn, “isn’t the norm for a university. Bringing the science and culinary world together and working with people that use the end product of research is important.”
Down the road Flynn “hopes to develop a collaboration between the table olive and oil olive grower.” Though they are two different animals with different fruits, harvest schedules, and processing needs, they do share a commonality in the plant science area from which both could benefit by working together. “Up until now they have operated separately and I think they realize that they have to work together. They are both facing overseas competition”, says Flynn.
With national experts in the field of olive oil production, olive orchard management, and nutrition and food science, the UC Davis Olive Center has the academic clout to delve into areas of processing, pest management, and sensory research, foster our growing desire for superior domestic olive oil and boost California’s stake in the industry. To learn more about the UC Davis Olive Center and the work that they do, visit their website.